SUSAN GROSSMAN MASTERS THE ART OF NARRATIVE IN HER MONOCHROMATIC INTERPRETATIONS OF FLEETING SCENES IN THE BIG APPLE.
In her large-scale painterly pastels, Brooklyn-based artist Susan Grossman practices the magical art of transforming the appearance of matter. Like a medieval alchemist working to transform base metals into gold, she manipulates dry pastel in many of her cityscapes to replicate rain-soaked pavement that appears so wet it fairly drips off the paper.
Through her work featuring everyday people navigating their way through New York City scenes, Grossman demonstrates a nuanced, clearly observed knowledge of city life.
DOING THE WORK
Born in New Jersey, not far from Asbury Park, the budding artist grew up in the television age and loved the drama she found in the darkened movie theater, being particularly drawn to the stark edginess of film noir. Grossman took drawing lessons early on, leaving little doubt that a career as an artist was in her future.
In the 1980s, Grossman studied painting at free-spirited Bennington College, in rural Vermont, where “there was a great appreciation for collaboration,” she says. “I was blessed to be there at a beautiful time when we were learning about abstract expressionism. I was learning how to control color.” After receiving a BA in painting from Bennington, she returned to her preferred urban environment, where she earned an MFA from Brooklyn College, in 1988.
Today, Grossman spends most of her time painting. When the hard-working artist is in her studio, she doesn’t sit like a mystic waiting for the creative muse to strike. “The romance of the artist’s life is a myth,” she says. “You go to work every day. I’m in the studio from nine in the morning until six at night. Most days, something will be made.”
PLACING CHARACTERS ON STAGE
It’s a deeply empathetic and psychological connection to the essential, geometric structure of New York City that suffuses Grossman’s work. Her simultaneous love of place and deep immersion in the anonymity of life in a bustling metropolis reach a satisfying balance in works in which she takes on the role of director, using figures placed like characters in a play. The city itself is the stage upon which they act out their daily lives.
Grossman’s vignettes of city life are interspersed with an occasional landscape from the south shore of Long Island Sound, a famous haunt for generations of New York City artists when they felt the need to escape the towering steel, stone and glass caverns of the city that never sleeps. The windswept sky and open roads in those unpopulated landscapes provide a release from the brick buildings, asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks of the artist’s Brooklyn neighborhood. Although beautifully executed with a fresh spontaneity, they lack the urgency of the moment depicted in her cityscapes.
USING COLOR FOR VISUAL STORYTELLING
Acknowledging her penchant for a minimal palette of black, gray and white that gives a classic film noir feel to her work, Grossman tends to shy away from broad swaths of color. “I’m not a colorist,” she says.
When she does use color, she does so sparingly—and with great effect—to direct the eye through the composition, as in Breakaway (opposite). The addition of color adds drama to the visual narrative. First we notice the cerulean blue and violet parkas on the backs of the children. We presume the girls are walking home from school on a brisk winter day. The play of bare tree branches against the wedge of ice blue sky seen at the far end of the street convinces us the air is crisp. One child dashes off to the left, breaking away from her three friends. We assume they’re friends, but we have no way of knowing for sure. The composition triggers a detailed narrative, prompting viewers to imagine what the relationships are among the girls.
SEARCHING FOR THE NARRATIVE
Grossman is, in fact, a master of narrative. She prowls the city streets, camera in hand, taking literally thousands of photos to capture elusive moments. She goes to a nearby pharmacy and has prints made of her favorites, taking them back to her spacious Brooklyn studio where she pins the photos to the wall and assesses the day’s (or sometimes evening’s) experience. No single photo is used as a source, however. Grossman takes elements from several to create the composite tale she wants to tell.
After hanging several sheets of Canson paper in various sizes on the wall, she works on several images simultaneously, moving from the larger to smaller pieces. “It’s sort of like stream of consciousness,” she says. “I ask myself, ‘What am I looking for? What am I in the mood for? What do I want to make today?’ Drawing is important; it has immediacy. I start out with a grid, like renaissance painters used to work. It has to feel right. The composition should move all around. The scenes—banal moments—are a narrative of the city. For example, a car obstructs the movement of a solitary woman wearing a white coat. It’s a little drama that intrigues me.”
USING MOVEMENT TO ADVANCE THE STORY
“Some artists may depend on high-minded titles to dictate what the work is about, but I’m against using titles as a crutch,” Grossman says. She prefers no titles at all, or only the most ambiguous-sounding ones.
Veiled (on page 43), a full-color pastel and charcoal from 2019, seems to be one of the few exceptions. In today’s world, that title is charged. The central image is of two young women partially concealed by their umbrellas. Although they’re seen from the back and are shielded
from our view, we surmise that they’re young based on subtle cues of posture and dress. Are we projecting too much by thinking the title has political overtones and is referencing the subjugation of women?
Grossman believes the viewer should be free to interpret the action and, as in cinema, movement is essential to the meaning of her image-making. These two women standing together in the rain under their umbrellas aren’t stationary. They’re poised to move, about to cross an intersection on their way to an undetermined destination. “I hope everything I do has a story,” the artist says.
HIGHLIGHTING AN ORDINARY MOMENT
Grossman’s human subjects are always seen from the back or side. Even in a more intimate interior scene such as View From Within (on page 44), the standing figure is looking down, her hair completely hiding her face, while the seated figure has her back to the viewer and is staring out through the window. There’s a Hopper-esque feeling of isolation that permeates this image and many others in which figures appear.
Grossman has painted portraits and specific individuals in the past, but she doesn’t like the “preciousness” a realist approach seems to evoke. “I think of the work in a more abstract sense,” she says. “I seek the atmosphere in film noir, like Woody Allen filming in Paris or New York City. You take that mundane moment and blow it up. That moment has immediacy. I’m more concerned with the movement of a swirl of a coat or the tilt of a head.”
INTIMATING AN ELEMENT OF DANGER
Surprisingly, Grossman doesn’t reject the idea of infusing an element of danger into some of her works. Fear is more prevalent when we walk city streets at night. Perhaps that fear is more overtly courted in a night scene such as Entrance (opposite). Viewers’ experiences of big city life will greatly influence how they perceive Grossman’s scenarios.
Those unfamiliar with the incessant pace and the constant demand to protect one’s personal space while dodging vehicles—particularly in the dark—may feel a little uneasy. Urbanites will likely appreciate the intrigue, complexity and luminosity as individuals own their space 24/7 in a city on the move. “I believe in depicting what you know,” she says.
In her urban scenes, Grossman spins her magic, telling engaging yet unresolved narratives in which the viewers project how the stories will end.